Gary Player walked up the 71st fairway in the 1962 U.S. Open lamenting a lost opportunity. He had put himself in position to win the championship, but a final round of missed chances left him five strokes out of a playoff with Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. Player confided in the referee walking with his group, “I’m so disappointed not to win the U.S. Open. Had I won, I had planned to give the prize money to charities. But let’s keep that a secret. One day I shall win and I’ll turn back the prize money to good causes.”
Three years later, he was in a position to do exactly that. Player defeated Australia’s Kel Nagle, 71 to 74, in an 18-hole playoff at Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis to win the 1965 U.S. Open. During Sunday’s final round, Player nearly gave away the championship by squandering a three-stroke lead. After Monday’s playoff win, however, Player gave away everything but the title, donating all his winnings to charity, saying, “I am a foreigner here. The American people have treated me so well I wanted to give something back.”
American-born golfers had dominated the U.S. Open through the middle decades of the 20th century. Homebred players won every U.S. Open between 1928 and 1964 – a length of time that spanned nearly two generations. With players such as Palmer, Nicklaus and Billy Casper dominating the game’s landscape in the early 1960s, it seemed a foregone conclusion that an American would once again claim the title in 1965.
While Palmer and Nicklaus battled for national championships, money titles and America’s affections in the 1960s, South Africa’s Gary Player took the international game by storm. It has been said that no one in history logged more miles playing golf than Player, who traveled more than 15 million miles while winning titles on six continents.
Player was born in Johannesburg, the youngest of three children. His mother died of cancer when he was just eight and his father was often away from home, working in the gold mines. He compensated for his slight build (5-foot-7 and 150 pounds) with a strict diet and fitness regimen that complemented his natural athleticism and grace. He turned professional at age 17 and in 1959 won the British Open as a 23-year-old, becoming the youngest champion to that point in history. Player went on to win the 1961 Masters and 1962 PGA Championship, along with dozens of other tournaments across the globe in the early 1960s. He came into the 1965 U.S. Open as one of the game’s leading players.
Breaking from the custom of holding U.S. Opens at historic venues, the USGA awarded the 1965 championship to a course that was just five years old. Built on rolling Missouri farmland just west of St. Louis, Bellerive was designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. and featured unusually large and subtly contoured greens. At 7,191 yards, it also established a record as the longest course to host the championship.
For the first time in history, the U.S. Open was played over four days. This new format not only provided increased television revenue and exposure, but it also solved the challenge of having the 60-plus players who had made the cut complete 36 holes on Saturday.
Despite Bellerive’s length, long hitters seemed to gain little advantage in the opening round. In fact, Nagle and Deane Beman, two of the shortest hitters in the field, were two of just three competitors to break par on Thursday. Nagle, who shot 68, played fairway woods into four of the par 4s and claimed he would have had a fifth if he had not hit his drive into the rough and been forced to lay up. Beman, the game’s leading amateur, used 13 fairway woods for his approach shots but still managed a 1-under 69. Player shot a 70, telling the media after the round that he couldn’t “remember ever making finer contact with the ball.” Three missed putts from inside 8 feet cost him what could have been a spectacular round.
Player matched his score in the second round to take a one-stroke lead over Nagle and Mason Rudolph. Beman, with rounds of 69-73 for 142, was alone in fourth. Player made one birdie (an 18-footer at the ninth), one bogey and 16 pars in a consistent, if unspectacular, round. The biggest story on day two, however, was the big names that were absent from the leader board. Palmer – who had a victory, two runner-up finishes and a tie for fifth in his previous five U.S. Opens – shot 76-76 for 152 and missed the cut. Likewise, the defending champion, Ken Venturi, was going home after rounds of 81-79. Nicklaus rebounded from an opening 78 with a 72 to make the cut on the number, but thereafter was never in contention. He got up and down just once in 13 attempts on Thursday and Friday. For the first time in seven years, Palmer and Nicklaus would both finish outside the top five at the U.S. Open.